The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Always looking for a good murder, that’s me. Throw in a strong female lead, an unusual setting, respectful cultural detail, history by the bucketful, and impressive writing chops, and well, I’m happy as a pig in a midden. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in 1920s Bombay, and features a Zoroastrian (Parsi) female lawyer tracking a murderer, battling bigotry, and fighting for her female clients’ rights. Call me Porky.

It’s 1921, and Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman solicitor, is finishing up a property contract in her office in Mistry House. But oh, her path to success has been rocky. Her father’s a lawyer too, which enabled her become the first woman to attend law school at Elphinstone College. But when she becomes the second-highest -scoring student after the first year, she’s made the target of terrible harassment and academic sabotage by the male students, who are resentful she’s showing them up. After many twists and turns, Perveen completes her law studies in Oxford, and returns to Bombay to help her father.

While many refuse to deal with a woman, Perveen’s gender finally becomes an asset when dealing with a particular set of clients–Muslim ladies who are purdahnashins (followers of strict Purdah laws), who live in a zenana and must avoid men who aren’t close family. A rich Muslim man Mr. Farid, with a valuable house in ultra-posh Malabar Hill, has just died, and his three widows (the titular ladies) have just signed away their monies to be donated to the family’s wakf. (Acc. to Wiki, a wakf is “an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law, which typically involves donating a building, plot of land or other assets for Muslim  religious or charitable purposes with no intention of reclaiming the assets. The donated assets may be held by a charitable trust.”)

Perveen suspects that the paperwork, handled by the household agent Mukhri, isn’t quite aboveboard, and decides to meet the Farid widows to ensure they haven’t been coerced into signing away their property. Mukhri turns out to be a sleazeball, and Perveen is justly worried for the wives’ fate. Even as she’s figuring out the best way to confront him, Mukhri turns up dead, stabbed in a particularly vicious manner. Whodunit? And will there be a real push by the (British) police to figure it out?

It’s a juicy mystery, but the real lure of this novel for me lies in Massey’s adept detailing of the socio-cultural context of the murder.  Here be Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Anglo-Indians, Jews, and the British, all boiling away furiously in the cauldron that is pre-independence Bombay. (Massey herself is German-Indian, was raised in Minnesota, and lives in Baltimore.) Each community has its own hierarchy, and its own markers of worth and respectability, but beware of making quick assumptions about liberation and progressiveness. The characters are complex individuals who are impossible to stereotype; while they are very much part of their religious and ethnic identities, they are much more than single stories. The British are colonizing India, but Perveen’s best friend is a queer English girl who is very willing to help Perveen. Parsis pride themselves on their progressiveness, but some rigidly sequester women during their menstrual cycles, to the extent of denying them the right to even clean themselves.  Muslim women might live in seclusion (voluntary or involuntary), but Muslim law allows widows to claim their dower against the husband’s estate even before the legacy distribution…

And oh, Massey’s research, and her attention to detail, are simply glorious.  For instance, we’re told Perveen has a golden-brown Swaine Adeney bridle leather briefcase, with her initials stamped in gold (it’s the case depicted on the book cover). Who can resist such specificity? I googled it, and yes, for a mere £1795 you can get Perveen’s case at Swaine Adeney Brigg, “individually created in [their] Cambridge workshop by a single craftsman”.  rac99tay_mediumAnd Perveen’s grandfather’s portrait hanging in Mistry House was done by one Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, who studied under Sargent. And indeed, this Poona-born Jewish painter, known for his portraits, married a Muslim lady, adopted Islam, and moved to Pakistan; check out tate.org.uk for more about him. And did you know that under Parsi law back then, adultery was defined as “a married man’s act with a married lady who is not a prostitute?” It wasn’t adultery, but mere fornication if the man had sex with a prostitute–and not considered to be sufficient cause for divorce, or even legal separation.  I could go on and on, but seriously: read the book.

And if you have the remotest connection to Bombay or Mumbai, you’ll loooove this book. The Widows… is an object lesson on how to perfectly balance a novel’s appeal between plot and setting.  “[The area called] Fort’s twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement. Now the district was known for the High Court and the many law offices around it. Nestled alongside the British and Hindu and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by […] Zoroastrians. Although Parsis accounted for just 6% of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers.” Here’s Perveen, buying sweets from Yazdani’s, an Irani bakery, before hailing a sunbonnetted rickshaw to Ballard Pier to greet the SS London. Here’s a mention of Lord Tata’s proposal for the development of Back Bay. One of the Farid widows was dowered with some not-so-useful swampland in Girangaon, where they’ve now built a mill or two or ten. There’s talk of Bombay’s Gothic architecture, and hey, Mistry House was designed by James Fuller, the  English architect who built the High Court. Queen’s Necklace, Chowpatty Beach…they’re all there, and how.

Perveen is based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, who was “the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman [of any race, I think!] to study law at Oxford University, the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.”  Wow. “Sorabji got involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf before British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities, but she was unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system. Hoping to remedy this situation, Sorabji presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Yet, despite her successes, Sorabji would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923.”

I’ve blogged about Massey’s excellent Rei Shimura mysteries earlier, but I have to say, she’s really upped her game with Perveen Mistry, and I’ll be HUGELY upset if after creating such a magnificent set-up, Massey isn’t slogging away at a sequel. And while I’m dreaming, maybe Netflix could make it a series too? Subaltern Phryne Fisher FTW!

 

 

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

So, it turns out that I’ve birthed a child who likes reading and science. Specifically, he likes reading about science, which is Not My Thing at all (I finished The Martian in under an hour because I skipped the bits I didn’t understand). It’s been challenging to find him books we both like, and when we struck gold with the Young Reader’s Edition of The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, I had to share the good news.

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TBWHTW is the true story of, um, a boy who harnessed wind energy. As a fourteen year old, William Kamkwamba hacked a windmill to provide electricity to his home. Good but not unusual in the Bay Area, you say, where peanut’s first word was “circuit”, followed by “Apple stock”? Well, Kamkwamba  overcame lack of schooling, zero supplies, and famine conditions in his quest to build his windmill. It’s a great story, one that actually deserves the accolade inspiring. Not because he’s from Malawi, but because this kid could take a microplane and a table fan and some EVOO and fashion a drone to Mars. This isn’t some creepy third-world inspiration porn: it’s Kamkwamba’s resourcefulness and intelligence and integrity and sciency-ness that make him a hero. And yes,  it’s all great reading.

William Kamkwamba was born in 1987, in a small farming village near the town of Wimbe in Malawi. He’s curious and adventurous and a natural-born tinkerer, cracking open old radios to figure out their secrets. “The [parts of a radio] that look like beans are called transistors, and they control the power that moves from the radio into the speakers. I learned this by removing one and hearing the volume greatly reduce.” (That’s how you do it, kids.) He wonders how gas makes a car move, how music is stored shiny little discs, how dynamos work–and realizes that he needs to know more SCIENCE.

But just when things are going well, nature and government conspire to bring about a catastrophe. The new Malawian President, “a businessman… [who] didn’t believe the government’s job was to help farmers”, eliminates fertilizer subsidies. William’s family, like most farmers,  now can’t afford to buy fertilizer for their maize crop. When the rains fail, Malawi begins to starve. Due to mismanagement and corruption, the government stockpiles of grain don’t reach the needy, and in a very short while, people are dying of starvation and cholera.

William drops out of school as his family can’t pay the fee, and soon, they are down to one meal a day. Somehow, the family must survive till the next harvest. “The bones were now showing in my chest and shoulders, and the rope belt that I’d made for my pants no longer worked. … My arms and legs looked like blue-gum poles and ached all the time. I had trouble squeezing my hand into a fist.” And William’s dog…oh, man.

Just as the family is on the brink, the next harvest comes in, and they are safe. But there’s still no money for school, so William keeps up with academics by reading his friend’s class notes. Then his life changes: he discovers the Wimbe Primary School library, which has three giant shelves of books. (This.This.)  He finds a book explaining all things science, but it’s in English.  “I devised my own system…for example, if I was interested in a photo or illustration labeled Figure 10 and I didn’t know what it meant, I’d comb through the text until I found where Figure 10 was mentioned. Then I’d study all of the words and sentences around it.” And then he’d ask the librarian to look up words like voltage and diode in the dictionary.

Having thus learned English, William chances upon an American text book called Using Energy, which depicts a row of windmills on the cover. He realizes: “If I could somehow get the wind to spin the blades on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I could create electricity. And if I attached a wire to the dynamo, I could power anything, especially a lightbulb.” Charlie, you can keep your Golden Ticket.

After much trial and error, with the use of old bicycle spokes, a lotion tub, a broken cassette player, an old shoe from the garbage dump et al, William rigs up a working prototype. Followed by an actual, electricity-generating windmill that powers four bulbs and two radios in his home. This one:

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(By Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando – William Kamkwamba’s old windmill. Uploaded by Church of emacs, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9424456)

 

Much to his surprise, William’s windmill gets a little press coverage, and then a lot.  He gives a TED talk in Tanzania (utterly charming, he’s all of nineteen), and becomes a TED Global Fellow in 2007. He gets to complete high school. He travels to America, where he sees a wind farm, with windmills like those on the cover of Using Energy. At age 23, in the year 2000, he attends Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering. Meanwhile, with the money from the sales of this book and from TED donors , he helps provide electricity to every home in his village. He drills a borewell for his mom so she doesn’t have to walk two hours a day for clean water; the spigot from the borehole is free to use for the women of Wimbe. He installs solar panels on the village rooftops, and he helps the friends who supported him back when he was on a quest for copper wire and car batteries. He’s set up a nonprofit called Moving Windmills to help fund local village improvements and to pay for tuition.

This is the rare book that’s a winner on every count–it teaches kids about everything that’s important, and it’s a fast-paced, never-preachy read. Bonus points to co-author Bryan Mealer for making the story accessible but not overly Americanized (Kamkwambe uses the word petrol rather than gas, for instance). The book comes in three editions– a picture book for the very young, this young reader’s version (suitable IMO for 8-14), and a regular old people’s version. Read them all!

 

California Bookstore Day 2015!

Saturday was California Bookstore Day, an event celebrating indie bookstores all over the state. Tragically, my city doesn’t feature an independent bookstore (there are comic stores, but you know it’s not the same), and so my son and I went to the bookstore in our neighbouring town. There were events and literary goodies galore, and we started off by buying this poster.

About that anatomically incorrect guy in his underwear and the dog in a diaper. My son loves the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey. You say you haven’t heard of Captain Underpants and Professor Poopypants and Super Diaper Baby? Some people have all the luck.

So….I haven’t warmed to these books (understatement alert), but I also recognize that they aren’t written for me but for a kid who thinks “butt” is the funniest word ever, right next to “stinky” and “slug”. As a parent, I mostly stumble around deciding on a case-by-case basis as to where to Draw The Line, and in the matter of Dav Pilkey’s work, I figured I wouldn’t/oughtn’t prevent my son from reading age-appropriate if utterly tasteless humour. So we laid down $10 for this poster, which is now hanging in my son’s room, and then we bought the latest Geronimo Stilton Spacemice book because his birthday is coming up soon.

But I’d had a secret agenda for visiting the store as well: I’d had my eye on these literary tea towels all along. Literature! Tea! in a glorious towel union!

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The teal one reads “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read–Lemony Snicket.” The yellow one says “People that like to read are always a little fucked up–Pat Conroy.” These are the “salty” towels–there’s another “sweet” set of two towels with different quotes featuring more family-friendly language.

But alas, I ended up not buying either set of towels. They were indeed brilliant as conversation pieces, but I didn’t think I’d get much traction from them when used for their intended purpose. I live with a seven-year-old who spreads jam around a twelve-foot radius every breakfast and often mistakes a tea towel for a dishrag, and these towels didn’t look like they’d survive such abuse. And I didn’t want to buy them just because they were cute (which they *totally* were). The notion of collecting stuff that is intended to be functional but ends up decorative confounds me–what’s the point, say, of dressing up a bed with those unyielding hand-embroidered pillows which must be removed each night? Moreover, I dislike collecting stuff that I don’t need or can’t use immediately. The prospect of having to take care of the said stuff, store and mentally catalogue it (and decide whom to bequeath it all upon my death) gives me the shivers. You know those homes with gracious glass-fronted display cases housing lovely objets d’art collected on world travels or crystal handed down by ancestors who bit bread (or had sex) with royalty? Well, that’s my nightmare residence. The only things I collect are books, hell yes! Indeed, it is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read…

I seem to have digressed from the topic of California Bookstore Day, which, in 2015, expanded to include independent bookstores all over the country. I hope you celebrated the weekend in your own bookish way! And check out @bookstoreday for pictures and tweets from the day.

A million free books waiting to be read

Openlibrary.org is the sort of thing that makes me believe in the future of humankind. It’s the ultimate public library, online. It was set up with Aaron Swartz as the original engineer baaaack in 2006, but I only discovered its existence earlier this year, and as none of my friends seem to have heard of it either, I thought I’d share it here. 

Open Library is a site that lets you read books online sans monthly fees or invasive information gathering, with no downloads or PDFs–you read on your browser. You check books out for 2 weeks at a time, upto a maximum of 5 books, and place holds on books you want which happen to be checked out. No late fees, ever–the books are automatically returned after 15 days.  You’ll find Neil Gaiman and Barbara Kingsolver and John Irving  and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and Robin McKinley and Octavia Butler and A.S.Byatt and Alan Garner and Salman Rushdie and Georgette Heyer and tons of  mystery writers including Patricia Wentworth and Laurie R. King and Dorothy Sayers and Elizabeth Peters and M.C.Beaton and of course Christie, and you’ll even find kids books including Dr. Seuss and the current oligarchs of my son’s bookshelf, Roald Dahl and Geronimo Stilton. Pretty freaking awesome. I have no idea how it words re: copyright except that it’s all legal.

All you need to join  Open Library is an email id. And time! It’s a time sink like nothing I’ve experienced. Consider yourselves warned.

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson

The library had Toads and Diamonds temptingly displayed on the YA shelf, reminding me I’d been planning to read it for three years now. I remember looking at the blogosphere reviews in 2010 and thinking it was *exactly* my thing. It’s a reworked fairy-tale (Perrault’s “The Fairies”)–a species of storytelling I’ve loved ever since I read the first Datlow & Windling anthology back when I was barely out of the egg. Moreover, Toads… is set in a world resembling the Indian subcontinent, and features two strong PoC heroines. And I’d  liked Tomlinson’s earlier novel Swan Maiden very much. So I checked out the book right then.

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Stepsisters Diribani and Tana work hard to eke a modest living after their father, a gem trader, was killed by bandits. Diribani is beautiful and gentle, while Tana is plain-spoken and  practical–and each has the other’s back. Life is difficult–not only are they suddenly poor, but their land has been colonised by the white-coated Believers, who scorn the natives, calling them dirt-eaters. The Believers venerate the One God, and require women to veil their faces, while the native religion (that Tana and Diribani observe) involves the worship of a dozen gods, has girls wearing their dowry on their person in the form of gold bangles, and abhors the consumption of meat. Although Tomlinson is deliberately reticent with many specifics (for instance, the girls are said to wear “dress wraps”), those familiar with Indian history will recognize the Mughal empire in 16th century-ish India. And while Tomlinson is careful with the details, she wisely does not make the accuracy of the setting a pillar of the book– Toads and Diamonds is driven by plot and by its strong characterizations.

When Diribani helps the goddess Naghali over at the sacred well, she’s granted a boon– precious stones and flowers drop from her lips when she speaks.  Then Tana in turn meets the goddess, but spews forth snakes and toads instead.  This is a really interesting development, for Tana wasn’t rude to Naghali–rather, the goddess grants each devotee the gift she deems fitting, one that’ll fulfill their innermost desires. Moreover, snakes are respected in this culture–not only are they viewed as emissaries of the goddess, but are valued for the practical purpose of pest control (each house has its own rat-muncher snake). I really enjoyed the way Tomlison calmly subverts the snakes/toads= ick trope in this book. Frogs are lucky! People worship snakes! Everyone wants a nice muscular ratter for their home like I want a Little Free Library for mine! The only downside to Tana’s gift is that some of  the snake slithering forth from her mouth are venomous. Oh, and that the Governor of their province hates the practise of snake worship, and has ordered their mass slaughter.

Diribani plans to use her riches to build hospitals and animal shelters and libraries and to hold art workshops (I love this utopian socialist-y Mughal kingdom, I do), but her step-mother advises caution–the greedy and all-out nasty Governor Alwar will undoubtedly exploit Diribani’s gift for his wicked ends once he hears about her powers. What are the sisters to do with their gifts?  Fate intervenes when the handsome Prince Zahid, younger son of the Emperor, gets accidentally involved in the fix. He decrees that Diribani will spend her time as the guest of the crown, with the ladies of the royal court at the city, while Tana will live near the sacred well so her snakes may be released in the wild.  Governor Alwar would love to kill Tana and cloister Diribani, but he can only nod and smile when the Prince issues his command. But he isn’t finished yet, oh no.

Diribani now embarks upon the long journey to the city with the Believers, learning more about their culture and in turn teaching them about hers, and hanging out with Zahid. (Tomlison deals with the religious aspects very gracefully–no simplistic dismissal of veiling or dowry bangles here–and we come to understand both sides better through Diribani’s eyes). Meanwhile Tana, unwilling to stay meekly in her secluded home, sets off on a pilgrimage to seek wisdom. The two girls grow and learn and understand the true value of their gifts.  And there’s a lovely ending that pulls it all together without resorting to any standard happily-ever-after devices.

Once the girls go their separate ways, Diribani’s story is much quieter than Tana’s. I felt Diribani’s storyline could use a bit more jump, and that Tana’s could have slowed down. Diribani’s journey is relatively uneventful, dealing with her gradual understanding (and widening appreciation) of the Believers , and hence is packed with description and inner monologue. By contrast, Tana rapidly goes through a series of hardships (she shovels cowdung, drags a handcart full of corpses, falls very ill etc. ), and is constantly on the move, so much so that I had trouble keeping track of her movements.  Although Tomlison paces her work carefully, alternating chapters for Diribani and Tana, the arrangement didn’t quite work for me–I think I’d rather have had more continuity in the read  for Tana’s storyline.  That said, these are very minor issues in a deftly-written, tightly-woven novel. Recommended for the setting, the telling, and for featuring a goddess with a fine sense of humour. Read it!

Recent reads and reviews

If we met during the Christmas holidays past, odds are I thrust a copy of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon into your hands, and then held a cleaved sword over your head till you began to read. “But I don’t like fantasy,” some burbled. “You’ll read this,” I replied, “because it’s set in a fantasy Middle-East where the locals are the heroes rather than the villains, because the writing is kick-ass and because the world-building is delicious.  Because NPR called it The Lord of the Rings meets the Arab Spring. And because I’m interviewing Saladin Ahmed.”  That interview was published in the February issue of Bookslut; here’s an excerpt.

The novel features a fat old hero, and a warrior-priest swordsman who’s all of five feet tall… You subvert so many conventions about masculinity and heroism that dominate this genre. Did you have a particular agenda while planning the novel, or did it all flow organically from the plotting process?

I’m glad someone finally noticed that Raseed is short. That was very intentional, and few have remarked upon it! Yes, I had — that most dreaded of things! — an agenda: look at other (Other?) criteria for heroism and follow the sorts of heroes we don’t usually follow. But to me, that’s not mutually exclusive to flowing organically. A writer starts out writing with a set of suppositions and questions in her head — even if she is unaware of them. But as one writes, these, one hopes, shift and squirm a bit.

[…]

Writers don’t tell stories in a vacuum, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise. So what already-told stories are your stories re-inscribing, which ones are they countering? Since long before 9/11, US culture has been saturated with stories about Arabs and Muslims as villains, as fanatics, as worthless, as better dead than alive. So yes, I aim to tell different stories in my work, and Throne is a part of that effort, however cloaked in swash-and-buckle it may be. […] in general, Throne very consciously aims to re-center the traditional western fantasy map, and to interrogate attendant cultural assumptions in the process. But, again, via monsters and magic rather than polemic.

Read the interview here, buy the book here, and visit Ahmed’s website here.

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I reviewed a couple of books for Herizons which I though I’d mention on the blog. Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels is an unflinching yet compassionate exploration of Disassociative Identity Disorder (better known as multiple personality disorder).  Nattel never sensationalizes the condition, and the plot unwinds very delicately. The protagonist Sharon is a Toronto wife and mother who has successfully concealed her condition for decades, but when a young pregnant girl in the neighborhood commits suicide, she decides to take action, even at the cost of revealing her DID. “And it all seemed so ordinary except it wasn’t” observes a character, and this line serves as a fine precis of the novel.  Nattel demands that we re-evaluate our conception of normal–whether applied to ourselves, our near ones or our society–and the results are unsettling, to say the least.

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(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki nails the miserable angsty insecurity that most teens wear like a second skin. Allison Lee opts to attend St. Joseph’s College because no one from her high school will be there–she was picked on in school, had a messy love affair with a fellow student Anne, accidentally set herself on fire twice, and now bears burn scars running from her hairline to her shoulder; re-inventing herself in college is a seductive idea. But then she meets the beautiful, crazy Shar, and their relationship soon turns abusive. Allison’s voice is remarkably wise and funny and she has a finely-calibrated bullshit detector for society’s strictures, but she’s so spectacularly misguided in her relationship choices that you want to leap into this book howling “WTF are you doing!” There’s an enviable alignment of authenticity and skill in Tamaki’s new book; this is stuff of classics.

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And now, for some exciting literary happenings, aka a nude author calendar. Twelve Canadian authors will display their beautiful…minds for a 2014 calendar, whose proceeds will go to PEN Canada (an organization that supports freedom of expression). The calendar is produced by Bare it for Books, and the line-up includes  Farzana Doctor, Miranda Hill, Terry Fallis,  and Yann Martel, who I hope will pose with a tiger covering his bits.

Thomas King on finding humor in intolerable situations

Before starting this piece, let me clout myself on the head for not reading Thomas King all these years. There.

Thomas King is a Canadian (Cherokee) writer and broadcaster who advocates for First Nations causes. Now, I believe the First Nations people got one of the shittiest deals in the history of the world. Like, EVER. The story of their colonization makes the British occupation of India seem like dinner guests who stayed a tad too long. I’d reach the end of my natural life span before I could finish reading the list of crimes committed against these peoples.  (I’ve written earlier about residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.) And this is not just ancient history–this is the stuff of our present lives. If you are a red-blooded organism, you should be very very angry.

King is indeed angry, but the first thing you notice about him is that he’s funny and affable.  Well, King explained that Native American issues are very harrowing for a general audience to engage with, and that he resorts to humor so as to keep his audience. In his radio show, for instance, in the segment titled 10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Have Indians in Canada, he listed the first reason as “they give the RCMP live targets to practice on.”  Smile. Wince. And…what’s the second reason?

King, who was born in California, spoke last night in my city–which  I learnt  is built on unceded Indian land (see stuff, present lives).  Happily, I seemed to be quite alone in my ignorance of his work.  King spoke in a gallery-style lecture hall designed to house several hundred skinny undergraduates, and the room was PACKED (and oh, those mingy chairs with those flip-top tables gave me a reminiscent chill). He was visiting for the launch of his new book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, which explores what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

The cover shows an old advertisement for an European cruise ship line, and even my untrained eye can see so much going on here–the pink-white-beige ship, the flag fluttering as it plows through the boiling water, the black and red evocative of the devil…oh, I could go on and on. King began the evening by reading two excerpts from his book. He first talked about the apology issued by Canada (Harper) and the USA (Obama) to the native people of these two countries. It was a “disingenuous” apology, he said, in that they were willing to admit guilt but  no liability; the history of colonization and genocide was sought to be portrayed as “a no-fault fender-bender.” Besides being personable and inspiring and witty–oh, can he WRITE. He then spoke about the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, in which he was an active participant.  [Correction: he wasn’t at Alcatraz, though he did set out (unsuccessfully) for Wounded Knee]. What if there were a do-over? Well, there’d be cell phones, they’d make sure they had a doctor in the group, and oh, they’d pack plenty of toilet paper…

King then took questions from the audience, some very moving. Asked if things have improved for Native Americans over the past hundred years, he replied in the negative–things might have changed but nope, they haven’t improved in his opinion. He said their single biggest achievement was that despite the years of genocide, despite systemic efforts to make the native people disappear by the end of the 21st century, they are still around. Then there was a gentleman whose daughter was a newly minted social worker in Whitehorse. Did King have any advice for her? Yes he did, and of the soundest variety: Pay attention, be respectful, don’t be a savior on a white horse (ha!). And on his next book–could it be called The Convenient Indian? As in: conveniently demonized to suit the settler agenda? King replied that he was almost seventy, so his book would likely be called The Incontinent Indian, and no, that wouldn’t be convenient at all. King recently retired as an (English) Professor; oh to have been a student in that class.

I’m too old for seriousness, he said, his face deadpan, and then brought the session to an end to a round of prolonged applause.  Quick, someone do a PhD on King’s use of humor as bait-cum-weapon-cum-alarm clock to alert us to the ongoing resistance of the First Nations people.